They’re here! Striking fear in moviegoers

Zoe Stratos | opinions editor

Oct. 28, 2021

We all know the symptoms of fear: the goosebumps, the sweaty palms, the rapid heartbeat, the unexplainable urge to hide behind a pillow or your hood. The experience of fear drives a physiological response almost unlike any other, but it’s tolerated differently by everyone.

Regardless of our so-called fear tolerance, there’s always the little screen before the movie begins telling us what it’s “rated.” But in reality, there’s no real system that encompasses the feelings of all 300 million Americans.

Our culture’s measurement of fear or gore isn’t always accurate, and theaters and streaming services need to take more care to warn audiences of what they’re about to get themselves into when watching a film.

The history of Hollywood’s film censorship debates date back to the 19th century, just after the creation of “motion pictures” in 1895. After the filming and premiere of The Corbett-Fitzsimmons boxing match in 1897, several states passed a law imposing fines those who played the film.

As with any new type of technology, government regulation is necessary to protect and warn Americans about what they’re viewing.

In 1907, Chicago was the first  city to begin censoring films, allowing the police chief to issue permits for playing films. But as the roaring 20s swooped through Hollywood, risque and scandalous plots became a focal point in film in the early 1930s.

The less than desirable censorship laws coming from states led to the employment of Will Hays, the president of the new Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America. Throughout the 1920s, Hays, alongside the big studios MGM, Fox and Paramount, created a list of do’s and don’ts in the cinema world. Once enacted in 1934, this “Hays Code” ruled film production for nearly 40 years.

After the fall of the Hays Code due to the popularity of television, movie studios had to re-evaluate their standards. In the 1960s, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) brought forth the modern movie rating system.

The MPAA rating program was designed to measure parental reactions. The ratings are established by a board of Los Angeles area parents — real mothers and fathers — who review the films.

Films are submitted by studios and producers that pay a fee for the service, and the board reviews each film in terms of theme, language, nudity, sex, drug use and violence. Although the board was created to warn parents about what their child is about to watch, its true purpose is to defuse any more government intervention.

What the rating system does is slap a letter over a movie without revealing the true content in a film, and overplays — and often underplays — the extremity of it. The basic ratings of G, PG, PG-13, R and NC-17 just aren’t cutting it anymore.

Not only does the movie rating system need yet another re-evaluation, it needs transparency. Instead of “The motion picture has been rated R: pervasive language and strong violence,” screen before a film, or the crude “rated R” in the corner of the screen on Netflix, the MPAA and studios alike should take care to further categorize films based on their content.

For example, films that include sensitive topics such as suicide or mental health issues should be accompanied by an S and an R, with a trigger warning before the film or on movie posters and advertisements.

In horror films specifically, categorizing by the type of violence or gore would help viewers to know if they can handle it. Let’s be honest, a lot of us overestimate our tolerance of fear — and some of these images stick in our minds much longer than we’d like.

A prime example of the film industry’s abuse of the rating system is Steven Spielberg’s “Poltergeist,” which has horrified kids of the 80’s for years, despite its PG rating.

In Connie Bruck’s 2001 profile of Jack Valenti, the president of the MPAA, for the New Yorker, “Poltergeist” was originally dubbed an R rated film until Spielberg appealed to the MPAA stating it was “all threat and fantasy, no reality.”

Knowing only that there contained some gore in the film, many watched, and to their horror, were met with much more.

Once ‘they’re here!’ — it’s got everything: body horror in the form of ripping off faces, a possessed clown doll and an anthropomorphic tree trying to kill the kids and skeletons lurking in the murky waters of the backyard pool — and the ghosts, of course.

A year before the premiere of “Poltergeist,” MGM had bought United Artists — and the deal wasn’t going so well. MGM needed a box office hit, and Valenti needed MGM to keep paying its MPAA dues, according to an article on Polygon.

Moreover, what Spielberg and the MPAA want from their movies is profit. They underplay the content in a film for box office success, while psychologically messing with the minds of kids and teens, or even an adult. 

Explicitly telling viewers, “hey, this contains body horror” is much better than the general violence or gore warning. Some things scare people more than others, and transparency helps those to know if they can watch the “Halloween Kills” or the new “Scream” coming out early next year.

Every once in a while I love a good scare, but the general contents of a film shouldn’t be a jump scare — leave that cheap moment to the monster.